Tim Maleeny: A+ Back to School Advertising

Back-to-school sales are as much a part of consumer culture as July 4th and Labor Day, but this year retail advertisers are less ubiquitous than in the past.

Although surveys suggest parents plan to spend almost 50% more per child than they did last year, tracking by Ace Metrix reveals that ad volume in July was down 40% versus last year and back-to-school messaging appeared much later in the summer.

Some patterns remain, with in-stores sales promoted through traditional media the norm, mainly newspaper and TV, and newspaper inserts and coupons standard practice. Online shopping and mobile continue to rise, but visiting one of the big chain stores (with the kids) is still the preferred path to purchase.

Part of the reason ad spending may have dropped is the lack of innovation in the retail space. Though we’ve seen some disruptive retail models appear in fashion over the past couple of years, such as Bonobos and Warby Parker, for school supplies it’s still the usual suspects: Staples, Wal-Mart and Target. And though Target possessed an aura of innovation and discovery for a while, lately its offering has seemed as predictable and mainstream as the others.

Without any new players on the competitive field consumers already know where to go for backpacks, pens and pencils, so most buying decisions will be based on store proximity and habitual behavior. This means the role of advertising is relegated to reminding customers it’s that time of year again. That might explain why ad units have gotten shorter, with the volume of 15-second spots up twenty percent this year.

Another consideration is that “back-to-school” is no longer a shared occasion, depending on where your kids go to school. There was a time when summer vacations in the U.S. officially ended after Labor Day, with all the kids showing off their new school gear on the same day in September. But between public, charter, and private schools which recognize different holidays and also schedule various fall and spring breaks, going back-to-school occurs anywhere from mid-August to the second week in September, making it more difficult and expensive for retailers to blanket the airwaves. That’s why familiar methods of geo-targeted coupons and in-store promotions continue to garner support from big retailers, who are measuring their success on a market-by-market basis.

The thing to watch over the coming months is how some retailers will try and leverage the data they gathered during back-to-school sales. Predictive analytics are enabling smart retailers to determine how many kids are in the home and what ages, which sports they’re into and what their favorite brands might be, who they’re listening to and what they’re watching. Sophisticated CRM programs are targeting parents with reminders and incentives around key dates in the school year.

Heavy shopping periods are great opportunities to map your best customers’ behavior and predict their future buying habits. Many agencies are still in the dark on how to build analytics into an integrated marketing program, except as a downstream measurement tool. And many clients are capturing data that they don’t know how to make actionable. Marketers have barely scratched the surface of this emerging art. And yet online retailers like Amazon have built their entire business model around performance marketing, and traditional retailers have finally realized they need to catch up.

In the waning days of summer, even as some things have stayed the same, the retail landscape will continued to evolve. In that regard all marketers will have to go back to school if they want to be around next year.